Instructional strategies are the techniques and materials teachers use to accelerate student progress, informed by the science of learning.
Some of the most compelling literature on what works in K-12 education comes from cognitive science, which describes how the brain takes in, stores, and retrieves information. The research points to four key instructional strategies that can be used across curricula to maximize learning and the retention of knowledge, stimulate knowledge transfer to related topics, and create opportunities for retrieval and application. They include: posing questions that deepen understanding, encouraging active recall, scheduling distributed practice (or spacing), and mixing topics together during lessons (or interleaving ), and providing frequent feedback.
High-impact instructional practices rooted in cognitive science mix content topics and vary student activities. They revisit topics over time and challenge students just enough to accelerate development. They draw on different capacities and senses and engage students with aligned assessments and feedback. Here are the key practices and terms:
Encouraging active recall. Rather than stacking lessons on the same topic one after the other, delaying re-exposure to material over a period of several weeks and months—whether through homework assignments, in-class reviews, quizzes, or other activities—significantly increases the amount of information students remember. One of the most exciting discoveries from learning science is that it appears that the greater the cognitive effort required to retrieve something from memory, the stronger the retention of that information. Lessons should be “just right” in terms of cognitive effort and include plenty of opportunities to recall and use new knowledge and skills.
The evidence also shows that quizzing students is one of the most potent retrieval practices. As explained in the Institute for Education Sciences Practice Guide Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, “the act of recalling information from memory helps to cement the information to memory and thereby reduces forgetting. By answering the questions on a quiz, the student is practicing the act of recalling specific information from memory.” Research also shows that taking a test is “almost always” more effective than spending more time studying the same material and that students who are tested frequently rate their classes more favorably. Writing, including responding to a writing prompt, can be a powerful retrieval strategy as well.
Scheduling distributing practice (a.k.a., “spacing”). This refers to how teachers time their lessons and assessments. Rather than stacking lessons on the same topic one after the other, delaying re-exposure to material over a period of several weeks and months—whether through homework assignments, in-class reviews, quizzes, or other activities—significantly increases the amount of information students remember. Mixing topics together during lessons (a.k.a., “interleaving”). This happens when lessons mix content and activities force students to shift cognitive gears. Such “varied practice“ boosts long-term retention, particularly in math. Rather than studying math operations of a certain type in isolation, for example, it is more effective to mix different topics and types of problems.
Providing feedback to students. In Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel write, “Studies show that giving feedback [on wrong answers to test questions] strengthens retention more than testing alone does and, interestingly, some evidence shows that delaying the feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.” The reason, they suggest, is that learners can quickly become dependent on being corrected.
How to apply these findings to the classroom? We find practitioner-friendly guidance from education psychology professor Barak Rosenshine, whose influential “Principles of Instruction” report formed the basis of the non-exhaustive list below, which first appeared in AFT’s American Educator magazine:
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Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Willingham, Daniel T. (2010). Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Wiley.
Carpenter, S.K., Pashler, H., Wixted, J.T., and Vul, E. (2008). The effects of tests on learning and forgetting. Memory & Cognition, 36, 438-448.
Cepeda, N.J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J.T., and Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.
Ferlazzo, L. (2021). “The What, Why, and How of ‘Interleaving’,” Education Week.
Kosslyn, S. (2017). “The Science of Learning: Mechanisms and Principles“ from Building the Intentional University. The MIT Press.
McDaniel, M.A., and Fisher, R.P. (1991). Tests and test feedback as learning sources. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 16(2), 192-201.
Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., and Metcalfe, J. (2007) “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning (NCER 2007-2004).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., and Walsh, K. (2016). “Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know.” Published by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Rohrer, D., and Taylor, K. (2006). The effects of overlearning and distributed practice on the retention of mathematics knowledge. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 1209-1224.